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Speech at President’s Reception 2021

This is the speech given by the SLS President for 2020-21, Professor Thom Brooks, at the President’s Reception held at The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn on Friday 12 November 2021. 

As the Immediate Past President of the Society of Legal Scholars, I warmly welcome our distinguished guests and members to this delayed President’s Reception. I must thank Gray’s Inn for hosting us and I am enormously grateful to the officers of the society, the wider executive committee and our council for both their firm support in difficult circumstances over the last year and for their flexibility in waiting for when conditions allowed for this Reception to be held. My special thanks must go to Rosa Bladon for doing all the hard work behind the scenes and keeping our Society on track.

What a year it has been for us all. When I stood for election at our annual conference in 2018 at Queen Mary, the conference theme was ‘Law in Troubled Times’. Little did any of us know what troubling times lay ahead. So many of us or those we know were affected by the impact of Covid-19, some much more so than others. It has challenged us all.

I am proud our Society was able to successfully switch to an online conference last year at short notice, however much I wish we could gather in Exeter, with a record turn out and strong engagement. I am prouder still that when conditions seemed better this year we were able to forge ahead and deliver our first hybrid conference at Durham with more delegates than before in a format we may well keep for many years to come. While running for over 112 years, the Society has not lost its capacity for flexibility and sound forward planning.

I was also proud to make good on my original election pledge to hold a ‘make the news’ competition. I thank Catherine Baksi and Joshua Rozenberg for joining me on our expert panel, and I congratulate our members Peter Dunne (Bristol), Anne-Marie Greenslade (Leeds Beckett), Caroline Henaghan (Manchester) and Eden Sarid (Essex) for terrific pitches that I hope all make the news in future.

While on the topic of good news, let me also congratulate Mark Dsouza (University College London) for winning the Best Paper Prize 2020 for his essay ‘Beyond Acts and Omissions: Remarkable Criminal Conduct’ and Tim Clark (University of Cambridge) for winning our inaugural Best Doctoral Student Prize 2020 for his essay ‘The Problem of Purpose: Assessing the Rise of Teleology in the Law of International Organisations’. Our warmest congratulations to them both.

For my substantive remarks, let me return to the occasion of their being 112 annual conferences each presided over by a different President. Over this time, several past Presidents have been born abroad, many more have worked abroad, but none appear to have been non-British or Irish at birth – until me. In my brief time remaining, I want to say a few words about where I see the future direction of law schools in a globalised legal world, as seen through the eyes of a Dean and an immigrant from the United States.

There are two broad models of a law school. The first originates in the earliest law school launched at Bologna, which I will call ‘the Bologna model’. The study of law at the university was primarily for the purpose of gaining an academic qualification. There was no particular difference between the study of law from, say, the study of philosophy or theology. The aim was higher learning run and led by academics in an academic setting. You can see this model continue today in many places where degrees and modules are dictated primarily by the interests of the academic staff.

A second model comes from my home US state of Connecticut, which I call ‘the Litchfield model’ for America’s first law school in that town. The object of training was not a qualification, but a higher apprenticeship learning how law works in practice from a highly experienced and well regarded practitioner, in this case that someone was Tapping Reeve who later became the Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. His students included two future Vice-Presidents, Aaron Burr, his brother-in-law, and John C. Calhoun. This model can be seen in the focus on practice and clinical legal education common in most US law schools today.

There should be no tension between these two different ideas of what a law school should do. A school following the Litchfield model might understand the law today, but lack the conceptual resources and wider picture to grasp changes in future. Likewise, a school adhering to the Bologna model might understand legal concepts in their various intricacies, but lack the ability to know how they apply in legal disputes. As argued by my friend and colleague Heather Gerken, Dean of Yale Law School, law schools prosper best when realising that theory and practice enrich each other and two sides of the same coin. A legal education that neglects one or the other does not best prepare our students for a successful career in law, whatever their chosen vocation.

However, I would like to go one further. Our programmes are focused largely, some entirely, on qualifying and working in a single jurisdiction. We promote qualifying law degrees and the like, or SQE-compliance, for our students as a major part of what we do. The situation is little different abroad. American students will be trained to be American lawyers while earning their JDs. While some schools can provide teaching in areas like international law, the main mission is focused on a single jurisdiction. This needs to change.

In my travels to visit firms and chambers over the last five years in the City, across the UK and abroad, it has become obvious to me that the legal sector is becoming increasingly globalised. No doubt driven by the City’s enviable status as a leading centre for handling legal disputes, a growing number of these disputes in the City and beyond cross jurisdictional boundaries. Crimes, family splits, property deals and more are increasingly conducted across borders. It is no longer enough for the best students to be best prepared for practice through engagement with a single jurisdiction alone. The future seems clear in exposing students to understanding alternative legal system, not only ours.

This is happening to some degree already. With the UK’s exit from the European Union, there is no diminishing of the importance for our students in understanding EU law in their degrees and on qualifying exams like the SQE. It is common in UK constitutional law and commercial law modules among others to make regular references to America’s legal system. I would expect it to become increasingly important for students to have an understanding of the EU’s and America’s legal systems as major trading partners for years to come.

The one elephant in the room is the growing profile of China and Chinese law, as well as its influence in East Asia and in the developing world. There is an increasingly urgent need for our law schools to engage more with Chinese law and incorporate it into the curriculum for all students, as we have done at Durham and at other universities. This is not about attracting additional overseas students even if it did so, but mostly about better preparing British trained law students for the British legal market.

In short, much focus and concern in law schools is directed at the balance of the more academic Bologna model versus the more practical Litchfield model. This tension is illusory and both can and should be pursued in tandem with great effect. But the real challenge is not this, but transforming our legal education focused on one jurisdiction to one focused on preparing students for an increasingly globalised legal sector working across key jurisdictions like the EU, the United States and China. This is where firms and chambers already operate. It is time to rethink legal education as usual and to expand beyond our borders.

Thank you everyone for coming this evening. It has been a tremendous honour to serve as your President and let me toast the future good health of the Society of Legal Scholars.

Professor Thom Brooks
Immediate Past President, Society of Legal Scholars